Once upon a time, there once was a very rich man. He lived in a fine house and wore expensive clothes; his table never lacked for any good thing. He had amassed more money than he honestly knew what to do with. But rather than even entertain the idea of giving up some of his wealth in order to benefit others, this rich man chose to be tight-fisted and hoard all his money away. He didn’t care at all about the suffering of the neighbor (or the neighbors) literally at his doorstep – in fact, he hardly seemed even to notice they were there. This man is selfish and miserly and cruel. And his name is: Ebenezer Scrooge.
Heh, I just can’t seem to read this particular parable of Jesus without being reminded of the familiar story of A Christmas Carol. There are just so many points of connection between these two tales. In Jesus’ story, the rich man is already dead, but he pleads with Abraham to try to save his five brothers by sending Lazarus to them back from the dead – what he’s asking for is basically the plot of A Christmas Carol: Scrooge’s whole ghostly adventure starts off when the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, shows up to warn him about the damage he is doing to his own soul by his selfish behavior.
Neither of these wealthy men in these two stories care about anyone but themselves. Just as the rich man ignores Lazarus begging and dying at his gate, Scrooge is completely indifferent to the struggles of his impoverished employee, Bob Cratchit, and his family (in fact, he is very much the reason they are impoverished to begin with!). But with Scrooge, we do get a glimpse a little deeper into the psyche. As mean and uncaring and just plain unlikable as Scrooge is, it’s hard not to also feel pity for him. He is clearly not a happy man. He has achieved the goal to which he has devoted his life – the goal of accumulating great wealth – but it has left him feeling empty inside, isolated from other people, miserable and alone.
Initially, when all these ghosts suddenly start showing up out of nowhere, Scrooge is scared silly (as you’d expect). Yet, even when Jacob Marley explains to him why this is all happening, Scrooge basically brushes him off with a classic “bah humbug” and tries to go back to sleep. The spirits drag him along anyway on these three journeys through the past, the present, and the future.
In the past, we start to get a sense of why Scrooge is the way he is; we see that his life has been marked by loss and hurt and abandonment and grief. But we also see that, in response to those hurts, he has chosen to close himself off from other people, and that he’s used the wounds of his past as an excuse to care only about money and himself.
So it only makes sense that the journeys Scrooge takes through the present and the future are remarkably similar to the story in our gospel reading. Especially in his journey to the future, the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come shows him the world as it will be after Scrooge’s death. Taken out of his normal life, Scrooge suddenly sees the world and all the people in it with clarity. He sees the love that he has willingly missed out on. And his heart begins to crack open just a little to care about the people that he had so long dismissed and mistreated, the people he had passed up every opportunity to help.
But in death, it’s too late for him to do anything about it. As the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come shows him his own name written on a gravestone, Scrooge begs the spirit to speak some word of comfort to him – much in the same way that the rich man in the gospel reading pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to give him some relief.
But then Scrooge – who isn’t actually dead yet – asks the spirit a question that I think is key for truly understanding the meaning of both of these stories. Scrooge asks the spirit: Why? Why would you bother to show me all these things if I were truly past all hope?
In the parable that Jesus tells, the rich man is already dead, and Abraham refuses his request to send Lazarus to his five living brothers to warn them about the perils of their own selfish choices. It’s too late for this man (he’s purely fictional, so it’s ok). But the people to whom Jesus is telling this story (and the people who will read it many, many generations later) are still very much alive. Jesus tells this story for the benefit of people who are still living, so that they may change their selfish ways. As harsh and judgmental as this parable may sound, in truth it is actually told from a place of profound mercy and care for our well-being.
It’s easy to get distracted by the language of heaven and hell/hades in this text, of paradise and torment, and to assume that the focus of this gospel passage is on what happens after we die. But the story Jesus tells here isn’t a story about the particulars of heaven or hell or really about the afterlife at all. The entire point of this story is to examine how we’re living right now.
Heaven and hell are realities that we can – and do – experience in our lives right now. We can begin even now to live into the gift of eternal life by the love and care that we show for one another and for our neighbors. Or we could also choose to do as Scrooge does, and live into a living death of selfishness and apathy and isolation that leaves us trapped in a personal hell of our own making.
We all know the happy ending of A Christmas Carol – Tiny Tim doesn’t die (yay), and Scrooge overnight becomes the soul of generosity: he starts finally paying his employees well, donates a whole bunch of money to all these charities, and in general starts using his great wealth in ways that God intended, in ways that make life better for everyone around him.
But the happiest ending of all is for Scrooge. By changing his ways and opening his heart, he manages to escape the hell that he has built for himself. It has nothing whatsoever to do with what happens when he dies. After all, he’s still very much alive at the end of the story – Dickens shows us nothing of Scrooge’s actual fate after he dies; his happy ending has everything to do with how he lives. This experience has opened Scrooge’s eyes to the joys and the sufferings of the people around him, and in response, he chooses to care. He chooses to involve both his heart and his hoarded treasure in caring for his neighbor. And in return, he is met with love – love like he has never known in his long, lonely life. In return, Christ himself meets him in the face of every single person he encounters.
Scrooge didn’t even realize how miserable his life had become; neither did the rich man in the parable – he’d thought he had it made! – and for that matter, the Pharisees to whom Jesus tells this parable don’t seem to recognize their own misery and narrow-mindedness either. And if we’re being honest, neither do we probably recognize fully the hardening of our own hearts, the blind spots in our own sense of compassion.
And that can be discouraging to realize – in fact, this whole parable can be pretty discouraging – because the more you read it, the more you realize what a lofty goal it is to try to love like Christ loves: unselfishly, unfailingly, and unconditionally. And you can’t escape noticing how very far short we fall by comparison. This world is so bottomlessly full of need and suffering and hunger; it seems no matter which way we turn, there’s always someone there with their hand out – whether it be individuals or organizations, there are always Lazaruses at our door, asking us for more than we want to give, asking us for more than it feels like we can give. Loving as Christ loves seems like an impossibly high bar.
But this all inevitably leads us back to Scrooge’s question of why – of why Jesus would tell us such a discouraging story. It’s not because Jesus wants to rub our noses in how screwed and fundamentally flawed we are. Instead, just as Scrooge realized, Jesus tells this story because there is hope for us. There is a great deal of hope for us. He tells this story because he cares too much about us to just leave us to our own selfish devices. With God’s unselfish, unfailing, and unconditional love daily working in us, Jesus believes that we can keep on growing more and more into that image of Christlike love. And he knows that his grace will be sufficient for us whenever we fail.
It’s a scary prayer to pray that God would open our eyes and help us keep our hearts soft to the suffering of the people whom we encounter – but we can also pray for the persistence, compassion, and courage to do these things; and we can trust that God will richly provide. We can trust that God’s love will continually enfold us, even when we fall short. Jesus invites us to trust him enough to open our hearts to love more boldly, to risk loving the Lazaruses and the Tiny Tims and all those who lie outside our doors in need of care.
This kind of love is a risk – but at the very least it’s a good way to avoid getting dragged out of bed by ghosts in the middle of the night. And at the very most, this is the kind of love that happy endings are made of – the kind of love leads us into eternal life, both in this life and in the next.